by September 1945, the United States was, by far, the most powerful state in the world. It had the largest economy, the largest military, and held a monopoly on the ultimate weapon. Over the next six years, the United States would learn that unprecedented hegemony granted neither freedom of action nor freedom from fear. This is a lesson that the US would painfully relearn fifty years later. Chapter XIV of From Colony to Superpower takes us from 1945 until 1951.
In the wake of World War II, the US wasn’t really set up for global empire. This is not to say that the US hadn’t always had global interests; part of Herring’s point has been that isolationism has never fully described US policy. The US also maintained foreign possessions, especially after 1900. The post-1945 situation was different, though; for the first time the US accepted a dominant role on the world stage. The institutions of governance that had conducted US foreign and security policy were insufficient to this challenge; accordingly, in 1947 the national security state was revised and streamlined. Herring suggests that the changes were relatively shallow, but I doubt that the US could have conducted the quasi-imperial strategy it undertook post-1947 without some significant institutional change.
Within five years of the end of World War II, the United States had become involved in militarized disputes in Greece, Iran, and Germany, and in a fully fledged war in Korea. Herring is, rightly I think, skeptical of the Truman administration’s handling of the immediate post-war crises, allowing that tremendous accomplishments were made, but also serious mistakes. He doesn’t really take seriously the idea that the Cold War could have been avoided; although there were misunderstandings on both sides, fundamental disagreements existed between the US and the USSR. Nevertheless, he argues that Truman and his lieutenants reacted with more alarm than was strictly necessary, and gave up opportunities for some significant cooperative gains. He pins much of the blame on Truman himself, who lacked a sense of nuance about international politics, and also lacked Roosevelt’s distaste for colonialism. Herring maintains, correctly again, that Truman’s team was far more successful in Europe than in Asia, and that NATO and the Marshall Plan helped lay the foundations for a peaceful and prosperous Western Europe. Neither of these things were given, but Truman successfully co-opted or overwhelmed domestic opposition.
As in the last few chapters, Herring touches on the influence of the China lobby. However, he never fully develops an argument explaining or detailing its influence. It’s a relevant question; advocates of China changed US policy prior to, during, and after the Second World War, often to disastrous effect. Moreover, the relatively small but fairly prosperous Chinese immigrant population played only a marginal role in China advocacy. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that the China lobby helped structure the terms of US entry into WWII, helped shape the strategy under which the war was conducted, helped create the quasi-state of Taiwan, and finally helped bring about the age of McCarthy, one of the darkest periods of US history. While the history of the China lobby has been detailed elsewhere, I wish that Herring had given it just a bit more attention here.
More to come…